August 10, 2017
Beach Reads for and about Old Folks
Who wants to spend their beach vacation reading about growing older? These recommendations just might surprise you.
“The Accomplished Guest” by Ann Beattie
Ann Beattie’s 1983 book of short stories, “The Burning House,” explored the drift, emotional detachment, and cynicism of boomers, whose worldview was darkened by Watergate. That book made Beattie’s reputation, and she has been prolific ever since, including regular appearances in The New Yorker. Her 2017 short story volume, “The Accomplished Guest,” is, for now, a bookend to “The Burning House” (Beattie is only 69 and no doubt has more books in her). While baby boom skepticism remains a central theme, her characters have developed a little heart and sentimentality over the years. I particularly liked “Company,” about an older couple entertaining newlyweds at their Maine summer house (one advantage of getting older). All night, Henry ruminates about his death. But as this glorious summer evening draws to a close, he finds reason to celebrate his friendship with the much younger Jackson. Jackson is still decades away from facing his own mortality, but tonight, they are “just two men – you know, any two men – passing time on the back porch.”
“Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast
For months, I ignored raving recommendations about Roz Chast’s book on how she navigated her parents’ old age. I should not have. This book by the long-time New Yorker cartoonist is a poignant, laugh-out-loud funny examination of the guilt, love, memories, regrets, anger, and tenderness that churn inside adult children carrying their parents through the final stages of their lives. …Learn More
August 8, 2017
401k Saving Harder at Lower Incomes
Our 401(k) retirement system doesn’t work as well for lower- and middle-income workers as it does for those at the top.
That’s because they face more severe headwinds in pursuit of their retirement goals, concludes a new study.
Consider what happens when a worker’s earnings drop 10 percent or he experiences a bout of unemployment. These episodes are more common among lower-paid workers, and when they hit, they hit their 401(k)s harder than the 401(k)s of people who earn more, according to the study, “Defined Contribution Wealth Inequality.”
In theory, 401(k)s could work for everyone – if everyone had access to an employer savings plan (which they don’t). And while people who earn more money obviously have more to sock away in their retirement plans at work, smaller paychecks aren’t necessarily a problem either.
The key to retirement for any worker is whether he or she has saved enough, along with Social Security, to cover about 75 percent of what they earned at work during the years leading up to their retirement. It’s true that lower-paid workers can’t save as much, but less could still be enough to reach their more modest retirement goals.
But earnings declines, unemployment, smaller employer contributions, and unwise investment choices – these “barely affect earners in the top 10 percent of the earnings distribution but are associated with less DC [defined contribution] wealth accumulation for those at the bottom,” concluded the researchers, Joelle Saad-Lessler at the Stevens Institute of Technology and Teresa Ghilarducci and Gayle Reznik at the New School for Social Research.
This disparity, they argue, has increased the retirement wealth gap in this country. In the post-recession period 2009-2011, for example, more high-income workers saw their DC account balances increase than did workers in the bottom half.
The researchers tracked the same people over time in two groups – the bottom 55 percent of the earnings ladder and the top 10 percent. They were able to more precisely compare each group’s ability to save for retirement by using the actual earnings and employer contributions to individual workers’ retirement plans. Here are their other findings: …Learn More
August 1, 2017
A Day at the Golden Age Senior Center
Chung-Au Loi Tai
Boston – Four mornings a week, a van scoops up Chung-Au Loi Tai and delivers her to the senior center for a full schedule of activities. The 1:30 bingo game is her favorite.
She giggles when she explains why: she likes the Chinese Rice Biscuits that are handed out as prizes.
She is one of 350 mostly low-income clients of the Greater Boston Golden Age Center’s three locations around Boston. Most came to this country from China decades ago and raised families while working in Chinatown or the suburbs. Chung-Au, for example, worked in a shoe factory for nine years, and her late husband cooked in restaurants all over the city.
Now in old age, the Golden Age Center’s community of like-minded people spend their days learning English, new songs, and calligraphy, eating $2 lunches – a “suggested” donation – and getting help with their medical and other needs from the nurse and social workers on staff.
Finding things to do all day might seem trivial to working people – there are barely enough hours in a day. But the center’s carefully planned activities are critical to seniors’ physical and mental health and to their families, who are still out working. One big reason for these daily visits is to prevent the frail or cognitively impaired from becoming too isolated.
The Golden Age Center and similar centers around the country make up a patchwork of often poorly funded non-profit and local-government agencies that quietly fill a big need in the safety net for seniors. These agencies provide an array of services, including transportation, meals, exercise, medical supervision, and cognitive stimulation. The federal Medicaid program pays the Golden Age Center a per-day fee for its low-income clients.
Ruth Moy, the executive director who founded the center in 1972, raises additional money from donations and other federal and local government programs. “There is never enough money,” Moy said. “You just keep plugging away.” …Learn More
July 25, 2017
Retirement Researchers Meet Next Week
On August 3 and 4, the Retirement Research Consortium will hold its annual meeting in which retirement researchers from around the country will converge on Washington to present their latest findings.
The papers being presented next week will explore the impact on retirement from our health, work-life balance, and family ties, as well the millennial generation’s prospects for retirement. These are just some of the research topics. Click here for the full agenda.
For those who can’t attend, the CRR will provide live streaming of the presentations as they occur. In late August, they will be archived on the CRR’s website.
The Retirement Research Consortium includes the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College, which sponsors this blog, as well as the Michigan Retirement Research Center, and the National Bureau of Economic Research. The research being presented at the conference is funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration. Throughout the year, the findings will be covered in this blog.Learn More
July 18, 2017
Mid-sized Employer Meets Big 401(k) Goal
Thomas Automotive Family’s service department in Bedford, Pennsylvania.
When Peggy Zembower became the human resources director for Thomas Automotive Family about four years ago, she was dismayed that some long-time employees had never increased their retirement saving above the measly 1 percent of pay they’d started at.
One big issue was that the lowest-paid workers at the auto dealership – like low-wage workers everywhere – felt they couldn’t afford to save in the 401(k). A lack of knowledge about investing and a reluctance to give up control of their money seemed to frighten others out of saving, which meant forfeiting their employer’s matching contribution.
“It bothered me when I saw employees who’d been here five years and up and saw what small amounts they were investing,” she said. “Many lower-paid employees saved little or nothing.”
With her boss’ blessing, Zembower got to work.
Thomas Automotive is a mid-sized company with 280 full-time and part-time workers. Their earnings run the gamut, from employees in the service department earning $11 per hour (or about $23,000 per year) to car salespeople earning as much as $100,000, and Thomas Automotive’s owner, who has four dealerships in Pennsylvania and one in Maryland.
By doing the things retirement experts recommend, Zembower increased participation to 87 percent of employees, up from 53 percent. She did this by instituting automatic enrollment in the 401(k) at 4 percent of workers’ pay and auto-escalation, over time, of the amount saved. (Employees have the right to pull out or to maintain past contribution levels.) These techniques are far more common at large companies.
She goes further, re-enrolling all non-participating employees each April 1st, which requires them to revisit their decision before opting out of the retirement savings plan again. “We have a few employees who feel we don’t have the right to do this,” she said, “but we do.”
One gets the impression when interviewing Zembower that it is not what she’s done to make the 401(k) plan work better. It’s how she’s done it, with her gentle insistence that saving for retirement is best for the workers. Sometimes this means she’ll ask a worker to wipe off his greasy hands and look with her at the retirement calculator placed front and center on the employee page of the company website. …Learn More
July 11, 2017
Retirement Calculators: 3 Good Options
The Internet offers many free calculators to baby boomers wanting to get a better handle on whether their retirement finances are on track.
The operative words here are “on track,” because each calculator has strengths and weaknesses. Calculators aren’t capable of providing a bullet-proof analysis of the complex factors and future unknowns that will determine whether someone has done the planning and saving required to ensure a financially secure retirement.
With that caveat, Squared Away found three calculators, listed below, that do a good job. They met our criteria of being reliable, free, and easy to use. Many other calculators were quickly eliminated, because they were indecipherable or created issues on the first try.
Most important, each calculator selected covered the assumptions crucial to an accurate analysis. All ask such obvious questions as how much an older worker and spouse (or single person) have saved, their portfolio’s returns, and estimates of their Social Security and pension income. The first calculator below asks how much money the user wants to leave to his children, and all three include the user’s home equity, a major resource that most retirees are loath to tap but are under increasing financial pressure to consider. Also, the first two ask more detailed questions – and are more time-consuming – than the third, which is the best option if you want just a rough estimate of where you stand.
Finally, this blog’s writer tested each calculator and compared the results with her personal adviser’s customized analysis. Each time, the outcomes were in the same ballpark as the adviser’s. A fourth good option is to use the calculator provided by the financial company managing your employer’s 401(k) – most of the major providers offer them. …Learn More
July 6, 2017
IRAs Fall Short of Original Goal
Nearly 8 trillion dollars sits in Individual Retirement Accounts, or IRAs. This is nearly half of all the value held in the U.S. retirement system, which also includes employer pension funds and 401(k)s.
A big reason IRAs were created in 1974 under the Employer Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) was to give individuals not covered by retirement plans at work an opportunity to save in their own tax-deferred accounts.
So, are IRAs helping these workers?
IRAs “have drifted very far from their original intent” of helping those who need them most, researchers for the Center for Retirement Research conclude in a new study.
Who is eligible to receive tax benefits for saving in an IRA has morphed over the years since ERISA’s passage, but the original description is still relevant to millions of Americans: about half of U.S. private-sector workers today do not have a tax-exempt retirement plan at work. Low-income workers are even less likely to have one.
To determine who benefits from IRAs today, the researchers first tracked down the source of the trillions of dollars held in IRAs. Only 13 percent of the money that flowed into IRAs in 2014 was from people putting new savings into these accounts. The rest was from rollovers of funds accumulated in employer 401(k)s, which usually occur when a worker retires or changes job. (ERISA did delineate rollovers as a second purpose of IRAs.) …Learn More